NCAA issues extended guidelines to help navigate return to fall sports during coronavirus pandemic

The NCAA Sport Science Institute on Thursday released extended guidelines to help schools continue to navigate a return to fall sports amid the coronavirus pandemic, including testing and results within 72 hours of competition in "high contact risk sports," but NCAA president Mark Emmert conceded the virus is trending in the wrong direction.

"When we made the extremely difficult decision to cancel last spring's championships, it was because there was simply no way to conduct them safely," Emmert said in a statement. "This document lays out the advice of health care professionals as to how to resume college sports if we can achieve an environment where COVID-19 rates are manageable. Today, sadly, the data point in the wrong direction. If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic."

The NCAA's guidelines released Thursday also included testing strategies for all athletic activities, including preseason, regular season and postseason, along with daily self-health checks, the use of face coverings and social distancing during training, competition and outside of athletics.

"Any recommendation on a pathway toward a safe return to sport will depend on the national trajectory of COVID-19 spread," said Brian Hainline, NCAA chief medical officer. "The idea of sport resocialization is predicated on a scenario of reduced or flattened infection rates."

According to the release, the recommendations were developed in collaboration with the NCAA COVID-19 Advisory Panel, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) COVID-19 Working Group, Autonomy-5 Medical Advisory Group, National Medical Association, and NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports Prevention and Performance Subcommittee. The guidance also takes into consideration recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the NCAA made testing a major part of its most recent guidelines, the onus is still on the individual schools to provide the tests, and the document stated, "schools should plan to secure the resources necessary to both perform the tests and to manage the details related to any positive results." If PCR testing cannot be performed within 72 hours of competition, then the competition should be postponed or canceled, or an alternative plan for testing should be developed and agreed upon.

The NCAA guidelines state that any individuals with "a high risk of exposure" should be placed in quarantine for 14 days -- and that includes opposing team members following competition. In some cases, the document states, that could mean an entire team.

The NCAA also gave guidelines for travel, stating when feasible, "schools should aim to travel and play the same day to avoid overnight stays," a scenario that's unlikely for college football season. If overnight stays are necessary, the NCAA recommends travel protocol includes universal masking and social distancing for individuals traveling with others by private car, van, chartered bus or chartered plane. It also suggests "prepackaged meals or room service should be considered."

The NCAA also gave guidance to help protect game officials, suggesting the use of an "electronic whistle."

Equally as important to its guidelines on how to try to operate safely during the pandemic, the NCAA also laid out specifics to help campuses know when it's no longer safe to proceed with college sports:

  • A lack of ability to isolate new positive cases or quarantine high-contact risk cases on campus

  • Inability to perform symptomatic, surveillance and pre-competition testing when warranted

  • Campus-wide or local community test rates that are considered unsafe by local public health officials

  • Inability to perform adequate contact tracing

  • Local public health officials stating that there is an inability for the hospital infrastructure to accommodate a surge in hospitalizations related to COVID-19.

While the NCAA continues to update its guidelines and practices that schools should consider, individual campuses are still charged with developing and executing their own plans as staff and student-athletes return to workouts.

The Big 12 schools plan to implement the 72-hour testing, which a conference spokesperson said aligns with the guidance from its league medical advisers and is among the recommendations that have already been made by the Big 12 athletic directors' football working group.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN his conference - along with the other Power 5 conferences - helped develop the document, so "we plan to follow it."

"Some of them are recommendations, some of them are best practices, some of them are requirements," Bowlsby said. "Generally speaking, we all embrace the document, and we'll do everything we can to make sure that all of us have the same minimum standards across the A-5, and I guess that we will expect that our nonconference opponents will meet the same stipulations."

Bowslby said "time will tell" if there will be enough tests available to comply with the guidelines.

"That's one of the challenges, for sure," he said. "Not only the availability of testing, but also the turnaround time from the time you submit the test to the time you get the results back."

While much of the focus has centered around the end of this month for any major decisions regarding scheduling, Bowlsby reiterated he would like to get into August preseason camps "to see how we do once we get back to helmets and shoulder pads."

"It's never really been about the season starting on time," he said. "It's about being able to safely and with good health, continue to do the things you need to do to progress to the fall, and if we're able to do those things during August, we'll get started on time. If we get disrupted, then there will have to be decisions made about whether we can start on time or not, or whether we go to some conference-only schedule or something like that. It's day by day by day. There really isn't a decision date. You keep going as long as you can keep going.

"To be clear, what we're proceeding on is the advice of scientists and doctors," he said. "There are national trends that over the last three weeks have not been good, but as you hear from almost anybody who's an expert on this virus, they will tell you that they can't forecast with any precision exactly what's going to happen with the virus. The other is you just have to keep moving forward and applying best practices and learning from what you experience."

According to a conference spokesperson, the SEC testing protocols will "at a minimum" include the 72-hour testing recommendation, and the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 are expected to do the same.